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Nicholas Blake & Nogel Strangeways Mysteries
Cecil Day-Lewis, CBE (1904 – 1972) was a British poet and the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1968 until his death in 1972. He also wrote mystery stories under the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake. He was the father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis and documentary filmmaker and television chef Tamasin Day-Lewis.
In his autobiography The Buried Day (1960), he wrote “As a writer I do not use the hyphen in my surname – a piece of inverted snobbery which has produced rather mixed results”.
Day-Lewis was born in Ballintubbert, Athy/Stradbally border, Queen’s County (now known as County Laois), Ireland. He was the son of the Reverend Frank Cecil Day-Lewis (died 1937) and Kathleen Blake (née Squires; died 1906). Some of his family was from England (Hertfordshire and Canterbury). His father took on the surname “Day-Lewis” as a combination of his own birth father’s (“Day”) and adoptive father’s (“Lewis”) surnames. After the death of his mother in 1906, Cecil was brought up in London by his father, with the help of an aunt, spending summer holidays with relatives in County Wexford. He was educated at Sherborne School and at Wadham College, Oxford. In Oxford, Day-Lewis became part of the circle gathered around W. H. Auden and helped him to edit Oxford Poetry 1927. His first collection of poems, Beechen Vigil, appeared in 1925.
In 1928 he married Constance Mary King, the daughter of a Sherborne teacher, and worked as a schoolmaster in three schools, including Larchfield School, Helensburgh, Scotland. During the 1940s he had a long and troubled love affair with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann. His first marriage was dissolved in 1951, and he married actress Jill Balcon, daughter of Michael Balcon.
During the Second World War he worked as a publications editor in the Ministry of Information, an institution satirised by George Orwell in his dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four, but equally based on Orwell’s experience of the BBC. During the Second World War his work was no longer so influenced by Auden and he was developing a more traditional style of lyricism. Some critics believe that he reached his full stature as a poet in Word Over All (1943), when he finally distanced himself from Auden. After the war he joined the publisher Chatto & Windus as a director and senior editor.
In 1946, Day-Lewis was a lecturer at Cambridge University, publishing his lectures in The Poetic Image (1947). He later taught poetry at Oxford, where he was Professor of Poetry from 1951 to 1956. During 1962–1963, he was the Norton Professor at Harvard University, and was appointed Poet Laureate in 1968, in succession to John Masefield.
Day-Lewis’s epitaph, taken from his poem Is it Far to Go?, reads:
Shall I be gone long?
For ever and a day.
To whom there belong?
Ask the stone to say.
Ask my song.
Day-Lewis’s two marriages yielded four children, including Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, food writer and journalist Tamasin Day-Lewis, and TV critic and writer Sean Day-Lewis, who wrote a biography of his father, C. Day Lewis: An English Literary Life (1980).
In his youth, Day-Lewis adopted communist views, becoming a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1935 to 1938, and his early poetry was marked by didacticism and a preoccupation with social themes. After the late 1930s, he gradually became disillusioned with communism. Among his works is his autobiography, Buried Day (1960), in which he renounces his communist views, while his detective story, ‘The Sad Variety’ (1964), contains a scathing portrayal of doctrinaire communists, the repression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, and the ruthless tactics of Soviet intelligence agents.
In 1935, Day-Lewis decided to supplement his income from poetry by writing a detective novel, ‘A Question of Proof’, in which he created Nigel Strangeways, an amateur investigator and gentleman detective who, as the nephew of an Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, has the same access to, and good relations with, official crime investigation bodies as those enjoyed by other fictional sleuths such as Ellery Queen, Philo Vance and Lord Peter Wimsey. This was followed by nineteen more crime novels. (In the first Nigel Strangeways novel, the detective is modelled on W. H. Auden, but Strangeways becomes a far less extravagant and more serious figure in later novels.) From the mid-1930s Day-Lewis was able to earn his living by writing. He is also credited with one film, This Man Must Die (1969), starring Michel Duchaussoy, Caroline Cellier, and Jean Yanne, originally produced in French.
Nigel Strangeways Detective Novels
Note: A not so healthy sports day?
The annual Sports Day at respected public school Sudeley Hall ends in tragedy when the headmaster’s obnoxious nephew is found strangled in a haystack. The boy was despised by staff and students alike, but English master Michael Evans, who was seen sharing a kiss with the headmaster’s beautiful young wife earlier that day, soon becomes a prime suspect for the murder. Luckily, his friend Nigel Strangeways, nephew to the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, is on hand to help investigate the case.
Note: A predictable Boxing Day?
Fergus O’Brien, a legendary World War One flying ace with several skeletons hidden in his closet, receives a series of mocking letters predicting that he will be murdered on Boxing Day.
Undaunted, O’Brien throws a Christmas party, inviting everyone who could be suspected of making the threats, along with private detective Nigel Strangeways. But despite Nigel’s presence, the former pilot is found dead, just as predicted, and Nigel is left to aid the local police in their investigation while trying to ignore his growing attraction to one of the other guests – and suspects – explorer Georgina Cavendish.
Note: Craft beer?
Private detective and poet Nigel Strangeways is invited to address the Maiden Astbury literary society. The picturesque Dorset town is home to Bunnett’s Brewery, run by the much disliked, and feared, Eustace Bunnett and shortly before Nigel’s visit, Bunnett’s dog Truffles, was found dead in one of the brewery’s vats. The culprit was never caught – although there was no shortage of suspects – but when a body is then found in the same vat, boiled down to its bones, Nigel is called into action to help capture the killer.
The third book in the Nigel Strangeways series, this is a gloriously inventive, puzzling and witty investigation to delight all fans of classic crime.
Note: The perfect murder?
Respected crime writer Frank Cairns plots the perfect murder – a murder that he himself will commit.
Cairns intends to murder the hit-and-run driver who killed his young son, but when his intended victim is found dead and Cairns becomes the prime suspect, the author insists that he has been framed. An old friend of Cairns calls in private detective Nigel Strangeways, who must unravel a fiendishly plotted mystery if he is to discover what really happened to George Rattery.
The Beast Must Die is one of Nicholas Blake’s most acclaimed novels and was picked by the Observer as one of the 1,000 novels everyone must read.
Note: The revolution is at hand?
Detective Nigel Strangeways, and his explorer wife Georgia have taken a cottage in the countryside. They are slowly beginning to adjust to a more relaxed way of life when Georgia finds a mysterious locket in their garden and unwittingly sets the couple on a collision course with a power-hungry movement aimed at overthrowing the government.
It will take all of Nigel’s brilliance and Georgia’s bravery if they are to infiltrate the order and unmask the conspirators.
Note: Murder in Wonderland!
Private detective Nigel Strangeways receives a call for help from Wonderland, a new holiday camp that has recently opened only to be plagued by a series of cruel practical jokes conducted by someone calling themselves ‘The Mad Hatter’.
The camp’s owners are convinced a rival firm, desperate to put them out of business, are behind the events. Or could it be a disgruntled employee, or even one of the four hundred guests currently staying at the camp? As the pranks become increasingly dangerous and tensions rise, Nigel must do all he can to uncover the Mad Hatter’s true identity – before it’s too late.
Note: Was it really suicide?
Poet turned detective Nigel Strangeways is summoned to Easterham Manor in the depths of winter to investigate a series of strange events, which culminate in the apparent suicide of a wealthy young woman whose behaviour has scandalised the village.
As Nigel begins his investigations into the dead girl’s past it soon becomes clear that someone in the manor is trying to hide something, and they will stop at nothing to keep their secrets safe.
Note: A propaganda critic?
The Second World War has just finished and amateur detective and poet Nigel Strangeways is working at the Ministry of Morale in London, in the Visual Propaganda Division. With war over, life seems to be calm again, that is until the Director’s beautiful secretary is poisoned in full view of seven members of the division, including Nigel himself. Who could have killed her? And how?
Note: A poetic encounter!
Staying with a friend in Oxfordshire, poet turned amateur detective Nigel Strangeways pays a visit to Robert Seaton, a distinguished British poet whom Nigel greatly admires but whose reputation has been on the decline of late. Seaton proves to be an irascible, temperamental man, and his unconventional household, featuring a resentful daughter and mute dwarf servant, simmers with tension.
When a headless corpse is found floating in the river by the Seaton’s house just a few weeks later, the poet becomes the prime suspect. But whose body is it?
Note: A dreadful place to die?
Someone is sending poison pen letters in the small village of Prior’s Umborne, and they have already driven one of the inhabitants to suicide.
Private detective Nigel Strangeways is commissioned to find the source of the letters by arrogant financier Sir Archibald Blick, whose two sons live in the village, only for Sir Archibald to meet an untimely end at the bottom of the dreadful hollow…
Note: A strange beginning…
A small boy playing in the park is handed a crumpled piece of paper by a stranger, who then collapses and dies. The boy, realising that he himself is now in danger, flees from the park with the help of detective Nigel Strangeways, only to discover that the mysterious message consists of just his own name and age: Bert Hale 12.
Bert and his young friends are confident that they can crack the case but they soon discover that they will need the help of not just Nigel Strangeways, but of the whole British government…
Note: A pressing problem?
Wenham & Geraldine are a long-established and very well respected publishing firm, so when a printer’s proof is sabotaged and libellous passages are mysteriously reinstated, they call in private detective Nigel Strangeways. But the situation takes a turn for the worse when one of the publishers’ best-selling authors – glamorous novelist Millicent Miles – is found dead in the offices.
Note: A pleasure cruise?
When private detective Nigel Strangeways books tickets for a holiday in the Greek islands with renowned sculptor Claire Massinger, he has no idea that the trip will end in tragedy.
From the moment the boat sets sail it becomes clear that many of his fellow passengers – from a neurotic widow to the ship’s lecturer – have guilty secrets to hide, but do any of them also have a motive for murder? It will take all of Nigel’s insight and flair if he is to uncover the truth.
Note: A legless corpse!
Several days after private detective and poet Nigel Strangeways dines with Dr Piers Loudon and his family, the doctor vanishes, only for his legless corpse to be fished out of the river Thames. When his family ask Nigel to protect their interests during the police investigation, it soon becomes apparent that each member of the deceased’s family, from his adopted son to his daughter’s unpleasant fiancée, had a strong motive for killing him.
As the winter fog swirls outside, Nigel must find his way through a maze of conflicting stories, missing diaries and red herrings.
Note: A working Christmas!
The government’s security department have asked private detective Nigel Strangeways to keep a discreet eye on Professor Alfred Wagley, a research scientist who is spending the Christmas holidays in the South-West of England. But someone else is also very interested in the professor and his work, and when his young daughter is kidnapped, Nigel finds himself in a race to avert a tragedy.
Of interest as Day-Lewis’ final rejection of communism!
Note: A trip to America!
Private detective and poet Nigel Strangeways is staying at Cabot University, an Ivy League university near Boston, while he undertakes some research. There he encounters the Ahlberg brothers – Chester, Assistant Senior Tutor in the Business School, Mark, who lectures in the English Faculty and their half-brother, Josiah, a professor of Classics. When one of the brothers is found murdered, the local police request Nigel’s help in catching the killer, but little does Nigel know just how close he is to the murderer.
Other Nicholas Blake Detective Novels
Note: A policeman murdered!
Hugo Chesterman: on trial for murdering a policeman. Why did he do it? Or could he be innocent?
Daisy Bland: Young, beautiful and naive, her testimony threatens to send her husband to the gallows.
For the young, and pretty, Daisy Bland it all started when she literally bumped into Hugo and fell madly in love. She gives up everything for him: her job, her friends, her independence. Blinded by love and naively trusting, she asks no questions about his vague profession as a ‘commission agent’, his suspicious associates and reckless financial decisions.
When Hugo is arrested for the murder of a policeman in a burglary gone wrong, Daisy doesn’t know what to believe, but her husband’s life is in her hands…
Note: The victim switch!
A Penknife in My Heart tells the story of how two men – total strangers – establish the perfect alibis by arranging to switch victims. Ned Stowe will kill Stuart Hammer’s wealthy uncle for which service Hammer is to eliminate Stowe’s neurotic wife, Helena. The men plot and the plan – with its horrifyingly simple premise – is solidified…
Note: The local joker!
When John Waterson and his young wife chose Netherplash Cantorum, Dorset, for their retirement years, they could not have predicted that this idyllic spot had one severe but unforeseeable drawback: among its inhabitants was a practical joker whose fertile mind ran to the most bizarre and grotesque designs.
The Village was no place for a quite retirement, or for a gentle recuperation from the nervous breakdown that had afflicted Waterson’s wife. In Netherplash, the peace is continually disrupted with extraordinary events tripping over each other which, in the end, lead to a hideous and painful murder.
With a cast of characters who are both bizarre and believable, this is an original tour-de-force of crime fiction placing Blake firmly in the genre.
Note: A different note in the finale!
In the West of Ireland in 1939 a young novelist rents a lonely cottage to write his new book in peace.
Almost at once, and without great resistance, he is seduced by the wife of the local squire. Harriet’s husband is an older man – hot-tempered, impoverished, gone to seed – who once fought famously against the Black and Tans. Soon this eternal triangle becomes a local scandal, and the atmosphere of threat and violence, intensified by the approaching war in Europe, leads to a horrific murder.
The Private Wound is Nicholas Blake’s last book, written with such intensity of feeling and depth of character that it is widely regarded as his best.